AVENGERS: Age of Ultron. “Look on my works ye mighty and despair”


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GOOD GUYS, BAD guys, frenetic action pieces, half a city trashed, a few wise cracks here and there, an A list cast (mostly), reasonably good CGI and a deafening sound track

If this description matches any one of the last two dozen or so super-hero movies that you’ve seen, then take it from me, you’ve been there and really no need to do more of that.

Marvel’s true super-hero is of course director/writer Josh Whedon (“Avengers Assemble”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). “…Ultron” opened to a $200M box office take…and it hasn’t even opened in the US as yet. It’s essentially a reprise of his first Avengers outing, “Avengers Assemble” (which took in $623M in 2012) but bigger, louder, trashing more cities in more places and with even more super-heroes (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as the Maximoff twins who look like escapees from X-Men).

It’s also far less engaging, you could say, dumber, despite some (maybe unintentional) existential forays, such as the housing needs of poor Captain America – Chris Evans – who complains that he can’t afford the kind of house owned by Hawkeye – Jeremy Renner. Briefly the mind drifted amidst the banging and explosions into the real world of these who save the world so well: just how much do they get paid by SHIELD? Does Natsaha Romanof, the Black Widow, aka Scarlett Johansson, wear jeans or frilly dresses when she’s not in body-clinging leather? What about the HULK? What happens to his clothes when he grows to five times the size? Do any of them get laid?

But I digress. These large, loud, end of days movies seem to fall into one of two types: Dumb Monsters or Fallen Angels.

‘Dumb Monsters’ (into which category “…Ultron” falls) inevitably suffer a fatal flaw: The antagonists remain so far outside any relatable dimension that they generate no emotional reaction from us. There’s no degenerate humanity to disgust and fascinate us. They simply remain loud pieces of destructive machinery, like monster trucks gone awry. There’s never any tension. Just noise. Think Godzilla, or Transformers or even “War of the Worlds”.

The Fallen Angels – mortal beings turned world destroyers – such as Heath Ledger’s Joker or Jamie Fox’ Electro, or Ian McKellen’s Magneto or the master of the lot, Darth Vader offer us a vision of darkness and evil, of good gone wrong, that can be compelling and watchably engaging. But all “…Ultron” has to offer is a computer algorithm gone beserk and turned into matter, by way of a Transformer-like super large, trash-everything Robot. And after we’ve seen ten minutes of buildings being smashed, you wonder, like Thor, “is this all you’ve got?” James Spader is the voice of Ultron, equipped perhaps via some mixed up party-line code, with the same patrician hauteur that he brings to “Blacklist”. Indeed, I kept seeing this large clanking steel monster and hearing Raymond Reddington.

And I kept thinking that a better title for “Avengers: Age of Ultron” would be “Avengers: Ages Before it Ends”

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Written a directed: Josh Whedon. With Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans. Mark Ruffalo. Chris Hemsworth. Scarlett Johansson. Jeremy Rener. James Spader. Samuel L Jackson Composer: danny Elfman. Production designer: Charless Wood (Also “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: The Dark World”)

 

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THE FALLING. Don’t fall for it


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THE FALLING.

This is director Carol Morley’s dull, ponderous, pretentious take on budding female sexuality. Or something.

The story is set in the late Sixties when the damp claustrophobia of convention is, like the young girls at a rigid convent-like school, about to change. Lydia (“Game of Throne’s” Maisie Williams) is at the heart of change. She is caught between the sweet innocence of childhood, lovingly intimate with her best friend, Abbie (Florence Pugh in her first movie…we’ll be seeing much more of her in the future) and her slow sexual awakening. This moment between innocence and experience, between the confines of school and the liberation of Wordsworth’s dales and hills (the poet is pretentiously quoted throughout the movie), between girlfriends and male lovers, between virginity and, as the movie points out, the petit mort, the little death of orgasm, is dramatized by a series of sudden fainting fits. Their own virginal petit morts.

In her class, the students at the school succumb to an epidemic of fainting fits. Perhaps, as the uncomprehending, rigid teachers at the school think, it’s all fake; perhaps it’s just group hysteria caused by the rebellious Lydia. At best it may be the delayed reaction of the sudden (and never explained) death of one of the girls (no longer just a petit mort for her). Or maybe, as the director signals with lights ablaze, it’s just the girls’ unconscious means of escaping social repression and entering into womanhood.

There are flashes of something genuine in the movie; we certainly get a sense of the hot-house claustrophobia of Lydia’s school and home life. And the quasi-adult society of the girls is nicely observed. But director Carol Morley is of the Terrence Malick school of storytelling where ponderous SYMBOLS punctuate every thought: the world of the classroom is contrasted with the world of nature. The central image of the movie is that of a large oak tree under whose spreading branches the girls frequently worship, as if freeing themselves from convention in a kind of adolescent paganism. The tree, the male icon, is perhaps the embodiment of budding sexual desire or freedom from repression. It is here, in its embrace, that the newly deflowered Lydia runs toward and climbs into. But the embrace of the tree is also another kind of trap; a trap from which Lydia must emerge. She does so by falling, trance-like into the rushing river below. It is from this river that she must be saved/baptized/reborn…from the small deaths of orgasm to the large life of adulthood. Out of the tree fell the child. From the dark waters rose the woman.

Whatever.

And for this nonsense I’ve delayed going to “Avengers”. Sigh.

 

The Falling. Directed and written by Carol Morley

With Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi, Maxine Peake

 

HAVANA. At the edge of history


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HAVANA

IN A REGION where, through indifference or greed, history has been obliterated, here history resides. As though, deprived of trade, discarded by the Russians and demonized by the Americans, history kept them warm. Here, there’s more than a pride in the past, there’s a deep, proud sense of identity that has lead to an embrace, a cherishing of their roots as a nation.

It’s no abstract sense of history. History is very physically here; there’s even an office of the city historian. But more of that later. Let’s start where the city ends: at the Malecón facing the Gulf of Mexico, a hundred miles from Florida.

The Malecón is a long, curving sea wall; an esplanade that embraces five miles of Havana which at high tide, stands up to the relentless blast of the gulf’s thundering Atlantic. Near one end, an ancient, thick walled fortress, the moro, bristling with rust-veined canon faces outward, ever scouring the sea for the threat of incoming galleons. There are none to be seen, and even on the clearest of days when the sea is flat and benign and the eye seems to see forever, what is apparent is what’s not there: maritime activity. It’s noticeably absent. The galleons are long gone. As is everything else. Nowhere are the flotillas of pleasure craft – the yachts and power boats and rowing boats and dinghies – that skim (you could say clutter) the seas of every other Caribbean port.

On the one hand, this lends a layer of peacefulness to the place: the only sounds you hear beyond that of the shushing sea are the salsas of strolling troubadours. On the other hand, there’s a feeling both of emptiness and of dread. As though beyond this wall, no man must venture. For the wall is more than a defense against tidal surges. It is more than a boundary. It is more like a barrier, the place where any longing look north may well be a look of treason. For those hidden watchers nestled in their slit-eyed turrets of the moro now scour not for Spanish galleons but for those who have the temerity to flee. The lingering lovers and ambling paisanos know that one step beyond here will turn them into exiles, illegal refugees from the revolution, from history itself.

So, no point asking “where have all the boats gone?” Those few with licenses are out fishing somewhere over the rainbow; the rest are rotting in Miami ports.

Turn away from the wall to the glorious city of Havana and there’s another kind of peacefulness: it’s the absence of sirens. As any big city resident will attest, the wail of urgent sirens muscling their way through traffic, demanding deference is a noisy aggravation we all have to tolerate. It’s either the sound of crimes foiled and lives saved or just the aural pollution that shouts “what police can do”, as one Reggae singer sang. Here in Havana, this layer of sound does not exist. Are there no crimes that demands urgent action? Has criminal activity been socialized out of its citizenry? And just where are all the police in this police state? Nowhere to be seen. But far away, when you venture out into the countryside, a few vigilant souls guard the city at the scattered police checkpoints dotted along the many empty highways that link the island.

Havana itself is a city of many barrios, each with a distinct character and personality. We stayed in Old Havana and Vedado – where the Marecón ends – a slightly more residential part of the sprawling city. The similarity they both share is that in these two parts of the city, a people proud of its history, is in the process of rebuilding its past. As Faulkner said, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. So it is in Havana – a world heritage site- where the steady flow of tourist euros (soon tourist dollars) is helping to turn pride into substance. And what is emerging out of the dust and rubble of poverty is a city that, like its people, has survived and managed to overcome fifty years of American embargo.

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As the many billboards proclaim, “Venceremos”: we shall overcome. This is what history looks like.

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And the centre of it all – the old historic centre – has the solid, colonnaded elegance of Colonial Spain (apart from an incongruous mini Parthenon – el Templete – built to celebrate the founding of the city in 1515). Here, streets upon streets of graceful gentility are now carefully curated by their socialist owners. Heavy wooden doors open up to bright airy flower filled courtyards; wrought iron balconies peer down on the cobblestones below; pre-Batista era bars, all boasting of some link to Hemmingway, long and curved and glowing with golden rums, beckon. These charming old buildings, many with metal plaques offering (dull) potted histories of their storied pasts remind you of parts of Polanco in Mexico City. The only difference is that these are (mostly) either government offices or part of the growing tourism infrastructure (hotels, approved restaurants, cultural centers). The uneasy balance between state control and nascent private enterprise hasn’t quite tipped toward private enterprise as yet… so individuality and flair remain subdued beneath the guiding hand of the State and the office of the powerful City Historian.

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The interesting places are the paladares: restaurants and bars owned and run by locals freed from government dictates. We ate at quite a few of these, often quirky, interesting spots: old homes that locals with enough cash (or contacts) had managed to transform into expensive and almost exclusively tourist eateries. At these, the food was good. But by and large, perhaps as a result of chronic shortages, Cuban food sucks. Moros y Cristianos (rice and beans) is the oft-repeated staple, accompanied by dry, tasteless overdone meat and a gratuitous throw of wilted greens. Based on our choices, the comida típica is a dull, unimaginative and tasteless protein delivery mechanism. What a disappointment for a country in a region whose food is such a heady mix of Spanish, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, African and English. In Cuba, it’s just those damned Moors and Christians, two groups that never worked well together.

At least Cuba offers that other combination that works very well together: rum and cigars. The range of rums offered by Havana Club, all aged to golden perfection, is inspiring. Bacardi will fight tooth and nail to keep it out. And the cigars, their wide leaves drying in large cool thatched barns out in the green valleys of places like Viñales are an old fashioned retro delight.

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But what the place lacked in good food, it made up for in music. Musicians abounded. From large sextets of ageing professionals, as old and gnarled as the buildings to trios of young pretty women with perfect teeth and manufactured smiles. The music was everywhere, bubbling out of ancient jalousies, jammin’ on the sidewalks, in near every restaurant (to compensate for the food), on perilous verandahs, and squeezed into narrow spaces between diners and kitchens. Of course most of the music is repetitive (Company Segundo’s break out hit, “Chan Chan” is the Moros y Cristianos of Cuban music) and rehearsed for tourist ears; though I wonder how many of these tourists will see past the annoying familiarity of the love song, “Guantanamera” and know that, ironically, it refers to a woman of Guantanamo. Yes, that Guantanamo.

The old city is fairly compact and manageable. But to get farther beyond, you need public transport. And that is an adventure in itself. We’ve all heard about the fleets of fastidiously maintained 40’s and 50’s cars. But it’s quite a sight to actually see them: all those glistening deSotos and winged Studebakers and Dodges with their shining chrome ornaments. Some of them were quite clearly not roadworthy and managed to move forward held together with nothing more than spit and many a prayer. Others were carefully preserved classics: transportation that was there to transport eager tourists back to a bygone age.

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We took our lives in our hands and went about in a taxi that was nothing more than a three-wheeler motorbike covered with a flimsy shell. But anything that could move worked: taxi bikes were always in demand. These are strange elongated constructs – a mix of rickshaw and bike. We also saw chariots that would not be out of place in “Gladiator” and of course horses which their caballeros still wove between the cars.

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But what of the real Cubans? It’s easy for us who would soon return to a world without shortages – of salt or rice or flour – or brown outs or empty pharmacies or taps that dry to a trickle in the middle of a shower. Easy for us to find this all exotic and charming, but once past the façade of the city rising like a Phoenix, what do the Cubans think? Where do they live? What do they think of these tourists with their seeming limitless cash? The few that we met were engaging and well informed. They were eager about the new rapprochement and were enthused about the hard cash the tourist trade was generating. And as for the many we saw rushing about, their lives seemed stylish and animated; there were no obvious signs of poverty.

We saw less art than we should have done; but what we did see (fleetingly as if through the windows of a speeding train) would not be out of place in the Tate Modern: thoughtful, philosophically dense, challenging works. And there were certainly bookshops aplenty. Perhaps the chronic shortages have simply been shrugged off. Poverty is real, but it’s also a state of mind. It’s when the embargo fully lifts…when the rice companies and the cigarette companies and the big Macs and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ride into town… that perhaps is when the real problems may well begin

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG ****


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“WHILE WE’RE YOUNG” is a delightfully ambiguous title for this smart, well-written movie about truth and deception. Middle-aged couple Josh (Ben Stiller), a creatively stalled documentary filmmaker and film arts professor, and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) a documentary producer working for her dad (Charles Grodin), would like to think of themselves as “still young”.

It’s a self-deception that they must both work through. And the story charts their journey to facing up to and dealing with the truth…of their marriage, their age, their jobs…their realities.

It is soon after one of Josh’s lectures that he is greeted by one of his students – an enthusiastic and gushing Jamie (Adam Driver, who after his success on “Girls” seems to be in everything these days). Jamie, also a documentary filmmaker, and his wife, Darby (Amanda Seyfried, so good in “Lovelace”) seem to be younger, better, hipper versions of themselves…the couple they imagine themselves as being, or would love to be again. 

So it’s no surprise that they’re easily seduced by Jamie and Darby’s seemingly boundless energy, passion and outright sexiness. For, faced with what seems to be a stark choice between reality – the banalities of planning and parenthood – and that fantasy – the pretense of being twenty five again, still enraptured by the energy of young love and an openness to experiences – they both opt for the fantasy.

They opt for a lie (with some very funny scenes as they do so)

Josh quickly begins to imitate Jamie’s hipster look and lifestyle. Corneila sheds her middle aged Pilates classes for hip-hop. It’s a cinematic cliché to see middle-aged white people imitating black hip hop style – remember Tom Cruise in “Tropic Thunder” – but in the safe hands of director Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha”), the comedy still works.

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Josh and Corneila both look ridiculous.

But no matter. If only for a moment, the fantasy of being young again energizes them. It re-engages their sex life. It re-ignites an excitement about life.

But only for a moment. For it’s not real.

What’s real is Josh’s middle aged arthritis, his back aches, their sense of loss from never having had kids, his turgid, boring unfinished documentary.

The life they’re willing themselves to imitate is all a fantasy: the seeming perfection of Jamie and Darby’s marriage is not even a reality. It’s a perception as false as thinking that parenting and adulthood is (as Josh and Corneila discover when they turn up at the apartment of their – age-appropriate- friends) an end to the good times. Perhaps, even more perniciously, everything about the casual encounter between Jamie and Josh is a lie…has all been planned and programmed by Jamie. Perhaps it was all just a clever ruse for him to get access to Josh’s revered and famous father in law (a celebrated documentary filmmaker); his own route to fame and acclaim.

Or is it? If the end is the search for “truth”, the goal we’re told of every serious documentary, do the means matter even if they involve a certain amount of (benign) deception?

When Jamie first intercepts Josh, he queries how Josh had staged a particular scene with dogs. Josh replies that the scene wasn’t staged, that the dogs just happened to have been there and that he simply shot them and edited the footage into the scene.

As we discover soon enough, the adulation is all fake. Jamie referenced this scene merely to prove the point that he’d seen the documentary. As a fellow filmmaker, his assumption was that the scene had been staged. For him, truth is a destination and it doesn’t matter the route you take to get there. For Josh, the idea of using a staged scene to express a truth would be dishonest…it’s the journey, the process that matters as much as the destination.

But it’s a false choice (Josh himself will need to reshoot scenes of the documentary he’s been working on for the last eight years, for purposes of continuity) and is perhaps more a reflection of his fear of the truth (that he’s no longer young, that Corneila can no longer have kids, that his documentary if he ever completes it, sucks) than anything to do with artistic process.

The scales fall from Josh’s eyes when, in the movie’s down-beat denoument, his attempt to unmask what he sees as Jamie’s deceitfulness, fizzles out

How you get to the truth really doesn’t matter that much in the end. It’s getting there that counts. And perhaps, though Josh may never produce a documentary that’ll garner the praises that Jamie’s probably will, he’s freed himself from self deception and has finally found his own – liberating- truth.

It’s one that’s probably more profound and meaningful than any documentary version of it.

Though Darby’s role felt a bit under-written (which meant Amanda Seyfried didn’t really have much more to do than look sexy; not difficult for her), Stiller, Watts and Driver were all superb. Indeed, this was one of Ben Stiller’s finest roles. That said, perhaps as the result of the directing, they all played within their comfort zones: Stiller the nerdy man/boy, Naomi the pleasant, somewhat contained partner, Adam Driver the perennial hip hop lightening-rod.

But, it’s nice to find an intelligent adult comedy surfacing in what sometimes seems a Sargasso of crude campus humor

While We’re Young. Dir./writer: Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer: Sam Levy (“Frances Ha”). With Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried

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